Serge Vardanyan – WIN.gg – Moving up the ranks

Based out of Minnesota, WIN.gg is aiming to revolutionize the lower tiers of esports. With its ever-growing WINNERS League competition for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it aims to offer amateur and semi-professional players a chance to hone their skills and move up in the competitive landscape.

We sat down with Serge Vardanyan, Founder and CEO at WIN.gg about the company’s journey and aims in the industry.

Serge Vardanyan, Founder & CEO of WIN.gg

Esports Insider: Could you tell us a bit about the origins of WIN.gg and how you embarked on your journey into esports?

Serge Vardanyan: I have always had a passion for competitive gaming, and I also had a dream of creating my own successful company. Thinking about how I would run the operations, marketing, and sales. 

Before founding WIN.gg I was in charge of the Americas offices for BetConstruct, a leading gaming technology and service provider. One day I decided to leave my safe job and pursue my dream. I was fortunate enough to find like-minded individuals who shared my love for esports and wanted to create something great.

I was also fortunate to find investors who would stand by my side and who shared my vision and trusted our team to create the best esports company in the world. 

ESI: What was the idea behind the creation of WINNERS League?

SV: There is a massive gap between the top of the professional scene with its million-dollar prize pools and the tier-two and tier-three competitions. Most of the money is being invested in the top tier teams and tournaments, leaving very few opportunities for up-and-coming talent. 

We want to support amateur and semi-professional esports communities by incentivising them to pursue their goals through WINNERS League.

At WINNERS League, an aspiring gamer has a chance to create a team and join our open division. From there, if they succeed they’ll have earned a spot in the next division with a bigger prize pool and a greater level of competition.

If they’re good enough to win there, they will get a spot in our invitational division where the prize pool is significantly higher and they’ll have a chance to compete against highly regarded professional teams such as Virtus.pro, Nemiga Gaming, or INTZ Esports. 

ESI: There are so many tournaments out there, what makes WINNERS League stand out and what’s your key differentiator? 

SV: There are a few things that we do differently. Most of the tournaments are one-time events through which we provide continuity from season to season. We also provide a tier system for competitors to progress and grow. We encourage gender diversity and invite top all-female teams like CLG RED and Dignitas to compete in our top division.

It’s not a secret that there is a lot of toxic language in the space. We decided that discriminatory and offensive language won’t be tolerated, and implemented the strictest filtering system on our stream’s chat in addition to several admins always monitoring the conversation.

Our environment is safe and inclusive, and want players to feel comfortable and to focus on the competition at hand.

“FACEIT is a great partner for us”

ESI : We once saw a DJ playing live on one of your streams. Do you do that often? We see LAN events bringing DJs to their events, but have never seen one used in an online event. 

SV: I am a sports fan and I am also a big fan of electronic music. I always wanted to combine these two things, and WINNERS League was perfect for this.

During every stream we invite a DJ to play. At first it felt weird for the fans to tune in for the game and see a DJ playing techno music, but over the course of the season our viewers got used to it and started enjoying it a lot, to such an extent that we’ve been asked multiple times to post the recordings of the DJ set on our channels so that they can continue to enjoy the music.

We’ve even had professional players compliment this part of our experience, which we’ve really appreciated.

ESI: You utilise FACEIT’s platform to host your competitions. How do you find this experience?

SV: FACEIT is a great partner for us. It’s one of the popular places for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players to gather and play. Third-party team leagues such as ours are fairly new to FACEIT and its team has been working hard with us to perfect and adapt the software to ensure a good and seamless experience for the players.

In total, there were 1,240 matches played throughout this season, with 155 of them being best-of-three series, and our administrative team managed all of these many games with flying colors.

“North America can be volatile, even when it comes to the top teams’ rosters”

ESI: With WINNERS League Season 2 coming to a close, how has this season compared to last?

SV: When FACEIT launched the league structure back in September 2018, it was frankly less than ideal. Some important functionally was missing and we had to implement those functions manually as we went along. But we received incredible and consistent support throughout the first season’s duration from FACEIT’s team. 

We started as the first and largest team league on FACEIT. Season 1 was free to join, so maybe not all teams took the league seriously. With Season 2, the competition got a lot more intense and teams knew they would be properly taken care of if they had any issues. The trust that we’ve built with players and teams is very important for this reason.

We also improved the production quality of our broadcasts, tried some new things, and will be using it as a stepping stone to improve even more for Season 3.

ESI: This season included your first North American league, how did this fare against its European counterpart?

SV: European Counter-Strike is more established and the tier-two and tier-three scenes are better organized, with there being a lot of playing talent. I feel like the approach to the game feels more like a traditional sport versus the North American scene.

Both seasons of our European finals saw teams play each other for the first time in an official match. Smaller teams in Europe have a lot more local fan support. North America needs to start supporting up-and-coming talent in new and innovative ways and for it to get to that level, we need to create a more solid “middle class” of teams, inspire them to chase their goals and to be consistent in those endeavors.

There are many opportunities here in North America, we often see teams migrate to this region and establish themselves as top-tier competitors (ATK, MIBR, FURIA, and so on.) North America can be volatile, even when it comes to the top teams’ rosters, unless the team is consistently placing highly at international events. I think, domestically, we can really look at the European region and take some valuable lessons.

ESI: What feedback have you had from competing teams about your event?

SV: Most of the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve been putting players first in a lot of aspects, especially when it comes to scheduling and prioritizing playing the games with good sportsmanship over forcing teams to play under the threat of a forfeit loss.

Some have been happy that there’s another tournament organizer that’s not just focused on the top 10-20 teams and actually has an interest in developing the mid-tier competition with a real focus on quality.

Of course, there is always room to learn and improve and any feedback sent to us is thoroughly reviewed for next season. Most of the critical feedback comes from the lower levels of competition, and we can certainly learn from it.

“We will keep the online format, and will have special LAN events”

ESI: What is the vision for WINNERS League? Do you plan on bringing the tournament ultimately to an offline event?

SV: We understand how logistically difficult and costly a LAN event may be for the teams. In order to make the experience as smooth as possible we decided to start with the online tournament, this also allows us to give the opportunity to have an unlimited number of teams, which goes alongside with our mission.

With this being said, we’re definitely considering having an offline event. We know that LAN play is the cornerstone of Counter-Strike. It’s the best venue for both players and fans. We will keep the online format, and will have special LAN events.  

In the meantime, we want to solidify our circuit as a premium competition that players care about and look forward to, and that viewers can enjoy making sure we give the best experience. 

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